Of the many Christmas landscapes that I’ve experienced, none is as weird as Christmas in Florida. I was in college at the time in Virginia, and road-tripped with a friend down Interstate 95 to meet my parents in Orlando for the holiday. They’d decided that it might be fun to experience the yuletide under a palm tree.
My parents, Millie and Jack Howe, are both from the Midwest, where Christmas is often frigid and rarely white. For much of my childhood we lived in St. Louis, with excursions for several years to the New York metro area and to eastern Pennsylvania where I went to high school - different places with a similar December climate. The family tradition was to stay home with the heat on, look skyward hopelessly for snowflakes, erect the three part fake Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, make a lot of cookies and load the underside of the tree with an embarrassing pile of gifts that we would open ritually in our pajamas on Christmas morning with Grandpa. It was a good tradition, despite the disappointment of cold without snow just about every year.
Between St. Louis, New Jersey and Pennsylvania the holiday routine was consistent, so the idea of a Florida Christmas was just a small bit disturbing. But who was I to argue with Mom and Dad? Let’s go for it. My father was suffering with a rapidly advancing case of rheumatoid arthritis at this point in his life. He understood what the future might hold for him and I believe the Florida Christmas was his idea. He was trying to pack in as many adventures as he could before his physical condition would start to preclude simple things most of us take for granted like walking and buttoning one’s own shirt.
We stayed in a small place in Orlando that was located in what used to be a citrus grove. In the back yard of the unit we were renting was a grapefruit tree, and the rental came with a basket-like thing with grabbers on a stick, the perfect tool to pull the Yule grapefruit down off the tree and have it drop nicely into the basket for easy retrieval. I still remember my father sawing out the grapefruit sections with a butter knife and marveling at how short the distance was between this particular fruit’s perch on its stem and its final disposition at the breakfast table, compared with the well-traveled and somewhat more road-worn orbs that we’d pick up in the produce section of the Schnuck’s back home. After breakfast we donned our Christmas shorts and t-shirts and headed to the then-new Walt Disney World theme park, where a series of larger-than-life cartoon characters greeted us dressed in what must have been stifling costumes of red velvet and white fur, the sound system all around piping in startlingly incongruous songs about sleighbells and snowmen while we wiped our brows in the warm sun between adventures in Space Mountain and Epcot. Part of that trip also involved a visit to Cypress Gardens, a now-anachronistic water resort in south-central Florida then widely known for its beautiful tropical gardens and water-skiing show featuring bikini-clad skiers. I daresay that moment represents the first and probably the last time I will see Santa Claus doing a spread-eagled leap off a ramp on a set of water skis while holding onto a tow rope from a powerboat.
The best memories I have of the Florida Christmas were formed during the several days we spent on Sanibel Island, on the Gulf Coast near Ft. Myers, Florida. At that point Sanibel was still a mostly undeveloped island upon which existed a series of small homes and tiny motels and a sandy single two-lane roadway, the island heavily protected by stern land use regulations its citizens imposed on the building industry and by the eyebrow-raising toll exacted when crossing the causeway from the mainland. We decorated a croton plant with a few colored lights inside our tiny motel room and exchanged a few gifts, without Grandpa this time, to mark the day itself. But the island was much more a magical place than Disney World, with Santa’s gifts strewn all across the beach in the form of beautifully formed seashells, which we collected greedily, as if somehow they’d run out if we didn’t get them right away. The warm breeze off the Gulf stirred the palms, and flocks of seabirds passed overhead, looking to roost nearby in the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Preserve as the sun set below the horizon in the Gulf. Christmas dinner was simple fare from one of the local restaurants, the building covered with bougainvillea that had been decked out with multi-colored Christmas lights, as if such a plant needed any more decoration than nature had already given it. Tropical as it was, this holiday was still Christmas, and we enjoyed each other and our treasure-trove of seashells. Then we folded our beach chairs, brushed the sand off our bare feet, and returned to our respective homes – me to Virginia to look for signs of white on the Blue Ridge come January, my sister to Bloomington, Indiana, and my parents back to St. Louis, where in the Italian section of the city every architectural feature of every house in every neighborhood was covered with as many colored lights as the owners could afford to buy and power, in celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.
In keeping with this heritage, I try to keep some downward pressure on the ever-escalating property values in my own neighborhood by stringing lights on everything I can find in the yard and on the façade of my house during the season. I must apologize to those who think that the tasteful single candle in each window and the lovely wreath on the door constitute Christmas decorations. I respectfully disagree. This year apparently the squirrels have taken offense at my overindulgence. They ate through the wires on several of my strands, alas during a time when the electricity was off.
As the temperature approaches 70, with 75 degrees predicted for Christmas Day, suddenly the Florida Christmas is closer in mind than it’s been in some time. I think my own family may be in shorts right here in Raleigh on our Christmas hike this year, much as my mother, father and sister were on Sanibel back when my father could still walk in the warm sand and button his own shirt. Somehow despite so many happy, chilly, snow-bereft years with my parents and my sister in our cozy home with the heat on, the holiday I seem to remember is the incongruous one.
I still hold out hope for a white Christmas here in North Carolina, despite our warming climate. One year we actually almost had it. In a bizarre turn of events Wilmington, on the usually-warmer coast of North Carolina, was buried in a freak snowstorm on Christmas Eve, with snow extending west as far as Goldsboro, only to turn to a cold rain at the Johnston County line, about 40 miles east of Raleigh. Sigh.
Without palm trees, grapefruits and seashells, the warm weather we've experienced recently is not quite as welcome this time of year in the Piedmont as it was on our Florida adventure. But it’s still Christmas, and enough lights have survived the squirrels to glisten through the rain outside the window and make me remember that, even though the Bing Crosby Christmas landscape of snowmen and sleigh bells is a pipe dream for us this year, the one we have is still pretty nice. It will be in the 70’s with a few thunderstorms predicted on the holiday, and I will walk with my family and neighbors on Christmas Eve in a t-shirt and a rain jacket down to the corner to see the live Nativity at the Hayes Barton Baptist Church. We’ll feel sorry for the wet burro and the little sheep, and the poor angels from the youth choir standing in the rain on top of the manger. We’ll still sing Christmas carols and give Luna a new dog toy, and we will all continue to wish for a white Christmas someday. This year I will also think about my parents’ wild idea to see Santa on water skis, the wonderful gift of seashells on Sanibel Island, the warm air and beautiful sunsets, and I will remember the two of them and miss them. Happy Christmas to all. May the New Year bring you peace and joy.